Category: Travel-tastic

A weekend in Palma de Mallorca

I’m quite the fan of going away for May Bank Holiday weekend – you get an extra day “free” and generally the weather in Europe is better than at home so its good time to soak up a bit of culture and avoid the wash out that is usually a UK bank holiday.

Imagine my chagrin then, when the weather forecast in the lead up to our weekend in Palma last month was predicting rain, while the UK was in for a heatwave? That’s not how it’s supposed to work! (although, thinking about it, our May Bank Holiday trip to Lyon a couple of years ago came with rain and wind, although at least the UK had the decency to be having the same weather at home).

Ever the optimist (seriously, I’m the kind of person who will look through ALL the weather forecasts until I find one I like!) off we went on our early morning flight to Palma with me declaring it would “all be fine” and if it does rain “it won’t last long”.

Well, it was raining when the plane touched down, raining when we left airport arrivals and absolutely torrentially bucketing down by the time the taxi dropped us off at our hotel about an hour later. It was too early to check in and we were only in the city for 3 nights so we left our luggage at the hotel, dug out our brollies and headed out into the narrow cobbled street (me in open toed sandals, told you I’m an eternal optimist, I didn’t pack any wet weather shoes!)

It rained all the way through lunch in Placa Espanya (although I still insisted on sitting outside “because were on holiday” even though we got dripped on from the welcome but not completely covering us awnings) but by the time I’d finished my second goldfish bowl glass of sangria the clouds had started to break and that was that for the whole weekend.

Palma de Mallorca is the capital of Majorca, largest of the Balearic Islands and around 2.5 hours flight from Birmingham. Lots of people land on the island and head straight to the beach resorts, and of course there’s the hideous party town of Magaluf that doesn’t do Majorca’s reputation any favours but the island is very beautiful, with so much more to offer than white sands, cheap beer and a really good climate (arrival day excepted). Just 20 minutes in a taxi from the airport, the capital is a maze of cobbled streets, bright plazas, a bustling harbour with cruise ships coming in and out and the piece de resistance, Palma Cathedral. It has a wealth of great shopping opportunities (we weren’t there to shop, but if you were you wouldn’t be disappointed), some great food and wonderful architecture.

We did our usual open top bus tour to get a feel for the city, wandered through narrow streets, ate delicious ice cream, looked up at the buildings, looked out at the sea, took a train journey away from the city and up through the mountains (more on that in another post) and generally just had a lovely time.

Here are some pics.

Palma Cathedral

We stayed at the Dalt Murada hotel which is in the Gothic Quarter and very well located for the cathedral, seafront and lots of places to eat. It’s a 16th century building situated on a very narrow side street which would, at some point, been lived in by a well to do family. There’s lots of dark wood, stone floors and old paintings, a bright breakfast room opening up on to an internal courtyard (we didn’t eat breakfast in the hotel) and a rooftop terrace with views towards the cathedral. It was reviewed in The Telegraph and I’d say it’s pretty bang on. I’d always rather have a bit of character than a faceless place to stay, given the choice.

Have you ever been to Palma? Or to Majorca? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks, as always, for reading. x

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A visit to Wollerton Hall Gardens

Ever since my garden has become my new favourite thing, it’s fair to say I’m obsessed with all things horticultural. I spend at least one lunchtime each week in the garden centre, I like nothing more than potting up pretty plants for my patio and I’ve started collecting shrubs for my newly cleared borders which are a wonderful blank canvas for me to start planning.

So when I saw that Gardeners World had a 12 month 2 for 1 gardens entrance card in their May magazine, I was all over it.

I’ve only used it once so far, when I went to Wollerton Hall Gardens last weekend.

The entrance fee is £7, or just £3.50 each with the 2 for 1 card. It’s probably quite expensive, for what it is, if like me you just wanted to have a meander and a bit of a nose. It’s certainly not a whole day out, but there is a nice tea room so you could probably get a couple of hours out of it. It’s a shame the (grade II listed, timber framed) hall isn’t open to the public but it’s beautiful to look at from the outside, and everything is immaculate.

The gardens are separated into “rooms” – each one with a different theme and/or colour scheme.

Poppies Wollerton Old Hall

Topiary Wollerton Old Hall

Lessons from our visit:

a) I need some poppies

b) I need some alliums (the purple ball shape flowers, top left)

c) I need to train my climbing roses

Are you a garden fan? Visiting, doing? I’m already looking for places to visit next!

Thanks, as always, for reading. x

 

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Rome – where we stayed and where we ate

It’s my final post about Rome, promise (until I go back again – which I most definitely will). I thought I’d do a quick round up of the more practical things – sleeping and eating!

Hotel Antica Dimora delle Cinque Lune
This hotel was marvellous; situated on the top 3 floors of a 6 story building, I can’t honestly remember how or why we chose it (which is unusual for me) but it ticked the boxes in terms of location (5 minutes one way to Piazza Navona, and 5 minutes the other way to the bridges crossing the River Tiber for the Vatican City) and quirkiness (the room was very gothic).

The lobby area on our floor had an opulent lounge area.

And the wooden shutters in our bedroom opened up on to candy coloured buildings and pavement cafes.

Breakfast was served on the roof with views across the city.

Hotel Antica Dimora del Cinque Lune Rome breakfast terrace view

Breakfast was standard continental fare – pastries, yoghurts, fruit, boiled eggs, cooked meats and pizza slices (when in Rome!). The staff were super helpful; storing our bags before check in and after check out so we could make the most of our time in the city, supplying maps and recommendations and generally just being really friendly and approachable. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Rome.

Caffe Bianco

Caffe Bianco RomeOur first meal in Rome was at a little bistro near Piazza Navona, where we ate bruschetta and pasta with a glass of wine for just 12 euros each (our expenditure on food increased massively after this point!) We sat outside under patio heaters and watched the world go by and it was lovely. It is possible to eat cheaply in Rome, contrary to my expectations, but with it being my birthday trip we splashed out on some nicer places which made the break more expensive than it could have been.

433 restaurant

433 restaurant RomeWe spotted this place whilst wondering back to our hotel on our first evening, and said immediately we’d go back there to eat. It was all lit up with fairy lights, had warm welcoming patio heaters outside and just looked so quaint and pretty, plus the menu ad us drooling before we’d even got through the door! This is up there as one of my most memorable restaurant experiences ever; we sat tucked in a corner by the window, drinking chianti, and had the most incredible steak wrapped in bacon and truffle. It was PHENOMENAL.

Caffe Sant Anna

This was the lowest point of our dining in Rome, and kind of our own fault for not researching in advance. We had time for lunch in the Vatican City between our Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica visits so stopped off at this place as it “looked nice”. Big mistake. We ordered a glass of wine each and the guy bought us a bottle. No matter; I’m not averse to daytime drinking and we thought perhaps they didn’t serve wine by the glass. The husband ordered a salad, and I ordered gnocchi, and while we were waiting for our food I checked TripAdvisor where there was review after review about the poor quality of the food (microwaved), and the discrepancies in final bills, people being overcharged, people being charged for things they hadn’t ordered – the general consensus was AVOID THIS RESTAURANT! Too late for us, we hoped for the best, but their poor reputation was proven when I watched my gnocchi be spooned into a bowl from a deli counter and then microwaved until it was so hot I couldn’t eat it, the husband’s salad was pretty much devoid of anything other than leaves, and the final bill showed 35 euros for the bottle of wine, when I knew it was only 25 euros on the menu. I challenged the wine price while the husband used the bathroom; the waiter gave me some bullshit excuse about having given us someone else’s bill by mistake (how convenient other people were eating what we were but drinking a more expensive wine?!) and the husband came back with reports of blood smeared all over the toilet. 55 euros down, no tip and a very sharp exit, as well as a lesson learned!

Osteria Dell Anima

We’d spotted this on our wanderings as well, and put it on the list to visit purely for the veal in truffle sauce (I do love how restaurants in Europe display their menus outside so you can make sure there’s something you want before you’re seated at a table). We arrived fairly late, and the restaurant was empty, but we were assured they were very much open and very much still serving. The lack of atmosphere and surly attitude of the staff, along with the fact I was trying to order a replacement oven online because our builder at home, in the final phases of work pre-Christmas, had told me by text that I wouldn’t have an oven for Christmas Day (we were hosting both Christmas and Boxing Day dinners!) made for quite a strange dining experience, but the meal itself was incredible. Truffle sauce – yowsers!

Clemente Alla Maddalena

Situated in one of Rome’s many piazzas, we stopped here for lunch on my birthday. Undeterred by winter, the restaurant had placed the outdoor terrace undercover and supplied blankets and patio heaters which added to the lovely atmosphere (I’m a big advocate of sitting outside whenever possible). We drank rose wine under the fairy lights and ate spaghetti bolognese (small portion, but very very tasty) and I decided that being 40 wasn’t so bad after all.

Cantina e Cucina

The husband had researched my birthday meal and found a lovely restaurant but, when we arrived, they had a private party on and weren’t catering for anyone else. He was understandably gutted, but I suggested we head back down the road to Cantina e Cucina which I’d read very good reviews of on TripAdvisor. The restaurant was lovely; very rustic Italian with checked table cloths, candles in wine bottles and herbs hanging from the ceiling. So welcoming and cosy with very friendly staff.

To start I had deep fried artichoke, which is a Roman speciality,  and the husband had the biggest bucket of calamari – we couldn’t actually finish it all. We both had  veal saltimboca for main. It was all ok, just not what I expected (my fault for ordering off piste) but the wonderful atmosphere, and the candlelight, and the chianti made everything amazing anyway, even if the food wasn’t the star of the show. Oh and I got a tiramisu with a sparkling candle and the waiter sang Happy Birthday; what’s not to like?!

Napoletano’s

Taken as I was with the Pantheon, along with it’s proximity to our hotel, it made sense that our last lunch of the holiday would be eaten at one of the restaurants facing the magnificent building before our car for the airport arrived. We settled on Napoletano’s for it’s perfect positioning, outdoor tables and a very welcoming waiter. Even though it was barely lunchtime (about 11.50am!) I was determined to finish the holiday with a lasagne and…you guessed it…more chianti!

And it was magnificent. Really rich sauce and perfectly al dente pasta. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, a busker was playing songs that filled the piazza, and we both swore that we would be back again to this most fabulous city.

I feel kind of sad that I won’t be blogging about Rome any more in the near future, but I had a wonderful 4 days there and I’ve been reliving it for almost 5 months through these posts so…until next time…

If you missed any of my previous posts about Rome, click the links below:

A trip to Rome (aka the holiday that almost never was)

Day 2 in Rome – Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica

Day 3 in Rome – The Colosseum and Roman Forum

Rome’s hidden treasures – Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps

Thanks, as always, for reading! x

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Rome’s hidden treasures – Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps

When I say hidden treasures, I obviously don’t mean in the true sense of the word; the Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain are all very well known Roman attractions. But I was super surprised by their location within the city, and how unobvious they were!

Let me explain. On our first day in Rome we went on a city bus tour. We like to do this on most city breaks because it gives a good feel for the city, the highlights, etc and then we generally go back in our own time to visit the places we want to see. During our bus tour around Rome, the commentary pointed out that both the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps weren’t visible from the bus, and we’d need to get off at the nearest stop and walk to them, which we resolved to do at a later point.

That same afternoon, after lunch, we were wandering around the area near to our hotel and I said we should go the the Pantheon. Do you think we could find it? Even the power of Google maps on my phone wasn’t enough to locate this world famous landmark (admittedly my map reading isn’t the best, I have to get in the map like Joey in Friends). We were tantalisingly close and we knew it but just couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Later on we would find the reason why – it’s tucked away in a piazza with no fanfare or big signs or feel of a huge tourist attraction – it’s just there. We rounded the corner and there it stood in front of us.

The first time we went in was dark, so when we looked up the dome we couldn’t tell whether the black dot in the middle was a window, or something else.

Insisting on returning the next morning, we found that it’s an oculus – an opening into the sky with no glass or covering. Rain falls through the hole and is then carried away by the drains inside the building. I found that pretty amazing; that it’s existed for all those years with such a design. The Pantheon has existed, in it’s current incarnation, since 126 AD.

Inside the Pantheon Dome

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Wow!

I loved the Pantheon. It was possibly one of my favourite buildings in Rome, which is quite a bold boast. Maybe it’s because we tried so hard to find it! Or because we saw it most of all (once we’d come across it the first time it felt like we passed it 3 times a day!) but I never tired of taking photos of it!

It was certainly special enough to be the host to our final lunch, where I ate unctuous lasagne and drank chianti and bathed in winter sunshine and the glory of an amazing trip.

The Trevi fountain is similarly tucked away, more so than the Pantheon (although better signposted). Walking down narrow streets we could hear a hum of people, and then turned a corner and there it was, in all it’s carved, watery glory.

It’s very beautiful, and very crowded – both due to it’s popularity and the limited space (as I said, it’s in a small piazza surrounded on 3 sides by buildings). As such it’s difficult to get many good photos, but just looking at these brings back the amazing memories.

We also went back during the daytime, because I like to squeeze every last drop out of every trip, but I preferred it in the evening because of how beautifully it was lit, and also because the bright sunshine cast shadows over the incredible detail (not that I’m complaining about the sunshine you understand; we were incredibly lucky with the weather and it made everything even better).

And finally, the Spanish Steps, tucked away at the end of a long shopping street (where I spent some of my birthday money on Pandora charms). Again we’d struggled to pinpoint the area, and it was our last stop before our final lunch at the Pantheon, and the poor old husband’s legs and back had given way after days and days of me walking him all over the city.

I didn’t know what to expect and that’s probably to my detriment because I guess I thought it was a tourist attraction in it’s own right, but really it wasn’t. I climbed the steps to the top, because I was there, and the architecture surrounding them is beautiful, but there’s no wow factor as there is in all of the other tourist attractions in the City (and there are a lot). The steps are just steps, and very crowded too.

Trinità dei Monti Cathedral is the imposing building at the top; I didn’t go in but it’s twin spires were very imposing against the beautiful blue sky (there’s me banging on about the weather again).

Catch up on my previous Rome posts below:

Day 1 in Rome

Day 2 – Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica

Day 3 – Colosseum and Roman Forum

Have you ever been to Rome? Did you have a favourite attraction? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks, as always, for reading. x

 

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DAYS OUT: Cardiff Castle

This week I had some emails telling me that Friendsfest tickets are on sale for this year. I guffawed loudly and remembered how crap it was last year – so overpriced and underwhelming (you can read about it, with pics, here). It didn’t help that we’d driven 100+ miles, from Birmingham to Cardiff, for the “privilege” and that it was one of the husband’s birthday presents.

Huge fail!

In an effort to make the day less of a fail we also went to Cardiff Castle, which was 10 minutes walk from Bute Park where FF was hosted. And honestly? That was a disappointment too! As a castle lover I was very much looking forward to visiting but I felt that it was overpriced (£12.50 per adult, for basic entry, plus an additional £3.25 for the house tour). Much of the castle has been rebuilt in more recent years, so it feels like it lacks authenticity (I like my castles gnarly and ruined and grand). The Norman keep was the best bit, in my opinion, as that’s what my idea of a castle is, and it’s a bit of a rip off to charge extra for the house tour considering how little else there is to see and do compared to other Welsh castles that charge much less for entry (we didn’t do it on principal and because it struck us more as entering into stately home territory, which isn’t really our bag).

It’s fair to say I wouldn’t recommend it unless you happen to be in the area (don’t make a special journey); there are much more interesting and striking castles in Wales.

On that note, here are some pics!

 

 

 

 

Have you ever been to Cardiff Castle? What did you think? Am I doing it a disservice?

Thanks, as always, for reading! x

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Day 3 in Rome – The Colosseum and Roman Forum

If you’re going to have to turn 40, there are worst ways to start your day than waking up in Rome with a visit to the Colosseum on the cards. Once again my pre-planning had come into it’s own, because I found through research that the Colosseum has bookable private tours of areas not open to the public. I wanted to get tickets for the undergound tour, which are are only released a few weeks in advance; I knew they were in high demand and unfortunately missed out. Fortuitously though, a new tour has just been launched – the Belvedere tour – which takes visitors up to the third and fourth tiers of the structure giving incredible views and a real feel of the size of the arena, so we still got to do something “extra” than most people have access to.

As we approached the Colosseum it was so strange to see the contrast of modern construction against such an old and important point of interest (a new underground rail line is being built to service this area of the city).

I underestimated the walking distance from our hotel (much to the chagrin of the husband and his aching bones) so we arrived just about in time to go through security and meet up with our tour guide. Everyone was given a headset to listen to the very interesting commentary as we walked around. The tour starts in the same entrance used by all visitors and then proceeds to the higher levels which are behind locked doors and only accessed by venue officials.

We learned that, despite depictions in films, gladiators fought other gladiators (highly trained fighter who went to “Gladiator School” in an attempt to gain fame and fortune) and not animals (that was reserved for criminals). We learned that it was not only lions that were shipped in for these fights, but also larger African animals like elephants and giraffes! We learned that, to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum in 80AD (known the as the Flavian Amphitheatre), a 100 day ceremony took place which saw events and fighting every day for the length of the opening ceremony. Tickets to attend events at the Colosseum were free, on a first come first served basis, and carved into a stone tablet, apart from upper class seats, right at the side of the arena, which were reserved for the ruling emperor, politicians and wealthy upper class members of society. We looked down from the highest possible point of the structure, looking at the tiered seating and the underground portion of the arena where you can still see evidence of the labyrinth of corridors which would have been hidden by the stage; where fighters and animals were kept until such time that they were due to perform, when they would be propelled up onto the stage by an elaborate (for the time) lift contraption and through a trapdoor.

Read some interesting facts about animal fights in the Colosseum.

After the tour we were free to wander around at will, looking at some of the permanent exhibitions and just feeling the sheer size of the space, marveling at the construction (it’s so symmetrical! And so well preserved!) And obviously taking all of the photos!

Me at the colosseum

After leaving the Colosseum, we headed across the cobbled courtyard to the entrance to the Forum and Palatine Hill, which is included in the costs of the standard Colosseum entry ticket. The ticket is valid for 2 days, so you could do one attraction on one day and the other the next, which is very useful if you’re pushed for time. It also represents really good value with everything you get to see for one price.

The Forum was the centre of ancient Rome, originally a marketplace and now surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government ruins. Shrines and temples, columns, both intact and in pieces, carved stone – it’s amazing to see the layout of the area still as it once was, even after all these years.

These doors are 2000 years old, and the lock still works! (that blew my mind)

2000 year old doors Roman Forum

The Arch of Titus was commissioned by Emperor Titian, in memory of his brother.

I wonder what this says?

Carvings on roman ruins

Upon leaving I took even more photos of the Colosseum because, honestly, it was just breathtaking and just incredible to see.

What a way to spend a birthday!

Did you see my previous posts, about my first day and second day?

Thanks, as always, for reading! x

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Day 2 in Rome – Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica

Long ago, before Rome was even on my radar, I read a blog post which mentioned the Scavi tour, which is the underground necropolis at St Peters Basilica. It isn’t open to the general public – you have to send an email to the Vatican to ask about availability and, if there’s a space (only 250 people are allowed through each day, with a maximum of 12 per tour, compared to the 30,000 per day that visit the Vatican Museums), they will book it for you and send an invoice which you pay online. I kept this piece of knowledge in the travel portion of my brain (which is a lot bigger than, say, the common sense portion) to be used at a future date.

Fast forward then to September 2017, when plans for our trip were taking place, and I unearthed this memory and sent an email directly to the Vatican (I like to think the Pope himself opened and read it) who confirmed our booking in writing, with a request for payment of just 13 euros each. Although neither myself or the husband are of any religious persuasion, we do enjoy religious architecture and history and not missing out on ANYTHING (OK, the latter is just me) so this was a no brainer. We were booked for 1.30pm so it made sense to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in the morning. Checking on the website I found that you can also book and pay for timed museum tickets in advance, which made sense as we knew our itinerary and I guessed that the queues may be quite long (more on that later).

It was another beautiful morning with bright blue sky so we set off on foot across the Ponte Umberto bridge to the other side of the River Tiber. St Peters Basilica is visible from quite a way away, its dome dominating the skyline as you walk down the long wide road towards it.

Approach to St Peters Basilica

We were approached a few times by people asking for money; old and disabled brandishing a paper cup towards us, which I found especially disturbing considering the location – isn’t the Church supposed to look after everyone? I was even more disturbed after our museum visit, because the amount of wealth is catch your breath obscene. Perhaps the Vatican City could rely less on harbouring so many priceless historical artefacts and more on looking after it’s own. But that’s a whole other post!

All around the area are ticket touts trying to sell tours, but also lots of tourist information people who are there to offer advice and directions, which was very helpful because, as expected, it’s incredibly busy with hundreds and thousands of people. As we rounded the corner to the street leading up to the museum entrance, our decision to prebook tickets really came into it’s own – the queue was 4 people wide and a good 300 metres long. We approached a tourist information person and showed him our booking, and he advised us to go right to the front, result!

Security is akin to going through an airport; you have to put your belongings in trays that go through an X Ray machine and then walk through a full body scanner (we felt safe everywhere in Rome; all the main attractions had armed police nearby, and the size of their guns would be a deterrent to anyone).

I’ll be honest here, I didn’t really know much about the Vatican Museums. OK, anything. I’m aware of the Sistine Chapel but hadn’t anticipated everything else that made up the attraction, and it was mind blowing, and somewhat overwhelming. We’re talking gallery upon gallery of priceless paintings, tapestries, sculptures, historical artefacts – even the ceilings are complete works of art. The amount of gold leaf was akin to nothing I’ve ever seen and we marveled at how so much of what was on display was completely priceless – how do you insure an Egyptian mummy?!

The sheer volume of stuff, for me, meant that I became a little bit complacent about what I was looking at. In a long narrow gallery full of sculpted busts and statues it became a little bit “oh look, there’s another centuries old piece!” which is bad but understandable, because its impossible to take it all in, and you find yourself drawn to the bigger pieces which means you could be missing out on something amazing next to it because it’s a bit smaller in size.

By selling off even 5% of the collection, the museum would still be an absolutely amazing place to visit but maybe, just maybe, the poor and needy begging outside would have homes to live in and food to eat.

Another thing I was surprised by – it’s a bloody long way to the Sistine Chapel! I’m talking thousands of steps on your FitBit! You keep following the signs, thinking it will be in the next room, or the next room, but instead there’s another gallery of statues, or more irreplaceable artwork and while it’s amazing, I started to think, just get me to the Chapel already! And then, when I got there, another honest admission, I was totally underwhelmed. Like severely “is that it?” Which is probably very heathen like of me and, if I believed in him, I’m sure God would strike me down but I’m not going to pretend I thought it was amazing when I didn’t. I expected it to be a wow moment, which I’m sure for religious people it is, and maybe it was because we’d already seen so much amazing stuff, but in contrast to the bright colours and intricate artwork of the galleries we’d already walked through it was a bit meh (there’s God, trying to strike me down again). For a start off it’s very dull and poorly lit (presumably to protect the paintings) and the ceiling – arguably the main attraction – isn’t at all what I expected it to be; I thought it comprised mainly of the Creation of Adam but actually it’s lots of different paintings in a collage. I know Michaelangelo and this ceiling are highly revered, but it didn’t tick any boxes for me.

I was much more impressed with everything that came before and afterwards.

Every ceiling was incredible!

The walls of this hall were lined with tapestries depicting the Italian coastline and dated back to the 16h century. Look at the ceiling as well!

Tapestry Hall Vatican Museums

I would recommend the museum to everyone visiting Rome because it really is quite something; even if you’re an atheist, critical, non arty heathen like me!

After a quick lunch it was time to join the aforementioned Scavi tour; again we were thankful of the tourist information guides as the location wasn’t immediately obvious. More security ensued and we joined our group of 12 people in a courtyard behind St Peters Basilica ready to embark on a part of the Vatican City that not many people get to see.

Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, talking us through the history of how the excavated space came to be. The Vatican commissioned excavations to be carried out there before Pope Pius IX was set to be buried in the space, in the 1940s, expecting to find very little, but archaeologists found a burial ground (aka a necropolis) dating all the way back to the 4th century; the temple of Emperor Constantine who had ruled at that time, and a funerary monument with a casket engraved with wording that translated as Peter is here (Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down in Rome during first century AD and his remains were interred in a tomb on the Vatican Hill. Bone fragments proven to belong to St Peter have been found and are now kept in a shrine deep underground which you get to see on the tour. He’s important because he’s said to be one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and so to religious folk he’s quite a big deal – hence having a whole basilica built in his name).

The necropolis is basically a city of the dead, and was the part of the city where people built mausoleums for their bodies to be interred after death. You can still see the layout of the Roman streets and the decor on the walls of some of the mausoleums (it reminded me, in a way, of parts of Herculaneum which we visited a couple of years ago). It’s crazy to think how old it all is, and that you’re actually walking on centuries old ground. The reason it was built over is because there was a huge fire which destroyed parts of Rome, but because it didn’t cross the River Tiber, this area of the city wasn’t damaged. Emperor Constantine gave the order to build on top of the Necropolis, and it wasn’t disturbed for thousands of years.

It’s very warm in the necropolis (you’re quite a way below ground level) and a lot of the areas are quite small and cramped. The tour takes around an hour and I would wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you’re not a religious person. Strict rules apply – no large bags (they have to checked in at the entrance and collected later), shoulders, arms and legs covered (this is a very religious space, whatever your own beliefs or non beliefs) – this wasn’t a problem for us as we visited in Winter, but one to consider for summer; and no photographs. The pictures below are taken from official sources because, although I wanted my own photos, I also didn’t want to get chucked out for breaking the rules!

Scavi tour underneath St Peters Basilica

You exit the tour in the crypt where lots of previous popes are buried; many of them have their own altars, some were restricted public access and there’s a lot of marble. When you exit the crypt you can enter the Basilica without the need to queue, which was fantastic because by that time of day the queues were thousands of people deep. For that reason alone it’s worth booking the Scavi tour – queue jumping and a behind the scenes look at parts of the Vatican City very few people have ever seen.

Inside the basilica is less impressive than expected, if I’m honest, it’s certainly not up there with the most beautiful places of worship I’ve ever seen (or maybe I was still reeling from the amount of artwork in the Vatican Museums!)

I was much more impressed by the outside, which really is stunning, especially against the clear blue sky. The columns are immense!

The Swiss Guards, who are solely responsible for protecting the Pope and must be of Swiss birth, Roman Catholic and between 19 and 30 years of age, were the only burst of colour against the stone of the building, and very snazzy they looked too!

Swiss Guard at St Peters Basilica

Would I recommend visiting the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica? Absolutely. But more than the visit, I would wholeheartedly recommend prebooking tickets for the museum and Scavi tour, even more so in high season, to avoid the lengthy queues.

Did you see day 1 of my trip to Rome?

Thanks, as always, for reading. x

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A trip to Rome (aka the holiday that almost never was)

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed that I went to Rome for a few days before Christmas, to celebrate my 40th birthday.

You may also have noticed that we almost never made it out of Luton airport.

In case you don’t follow me on insta (you should, by the way, shameless plug of link to my account here) or if their silly algorithm means you don’t see my posts, here’s what happened.

Our flight from Luton was at 6.40am on the Monday morning, so we travelled down the day before and stayed in a hotel near the airport. Early start (3am alarm, eek) was fairly uneventful and we checked in and went to buy some currency (because dimwit here had forgotten to collect the euros I’d pre-ordered from the Post Office, d’oh!) I bought some bits from Boots (2 more travel plugs to ad to our growing – but missing – collection) and had a tasty breakfast with a cocktail to start an exciting and momentous trip. All was well, so with 20 minutes until the departure gate opened we had a browse in WH Smith to buy some magazines for the flight.

When we came to pay, we of course needed one of our boarding passes, which of course wasn’t a problem because they were safely in an envelope in my handbag alongside the passports. Except they weren’t. No boarding cards, no envelope and no passports. Cue frantic retracing of steps to the restaurant and boots (to no avail), heart in mouth and panic sweats. The husband, it must be pointed out, was taking things remarkably well (for him) and stayed fairly level headed and non-angry, despite the fact that the look in his eyes said otherwise. We raced back to security in the hope that someone had handed them in (as I reasonably pointed out, if you found some travel documents in an airport you’d have to be a total shit to throw them away) and THANK GOD a smiling security lady located them under a desk and gave them back to a calm-on-the-outside-frantic-on-the-inside me! I hadn’t even left them in the security tray after scanning though, no, they hadn’t even got that far. When I was putting my liquids in a bag, before the security check, I’d left the envelope on a shelf. An envelope which, with being shoved in and out of my bag on the journey so far, could easily have been mistaken for some tatty old rubbish,

Total muppet – it was almost a birthday to remember for all the wrong reasons…

Needless to say I wasn’t allowed to keep the passports for the rest of the trip, even though I’m usually Chief Security Officer; they remained securely in the husband’s inside pocket of his coat, and I was the butt of multiple jokes as a result!

I’m glad to report that the rest of the trip went by without incident. We arrived at Rome Fiumicino airport at around 10.30am, collected our luggage and headed out into the arrivals lounge where we were met by our pre-booked driver (I always try and do this, where possible, it saves lots of hassle and is usually cheaper than getting a cab at the airport, plus you get to feel a little bit like a famous person for a nanosecond!). The transfer to the city centre and our hotel took around 30 minutes, and the closer we got to the centre, the more evidence of Roman architecture started to appear; like random columns in the middle of modern buildings. That’s one of the things that surprised me about Rome, many of the tourist attractions are just in the middle of the working city, not on a dedicated site with a big wide open space around them. We stumbled on both the Pantheon and the Trevi fountain in this way; we turned a corner and there they were, in the middle of a piazza. It’s quite strange!

We arrived at our hotel – Antica Dimora dell Cinque Lune (I’ll review that in another post) – at around 11.30, which was too early to check in, but the receptionist was incredibly helpful and stored our luggage so we were free to set off and explore. We spent a few minutes getting our bearings, but knowing we were just steps from the River Tiber and the Palace of Justice meant we already knew where to head to if we were to get lost!

Spotting a number of hop on hop off bus tours on the main road alongside the river, we set off to find a bus stop, and by midday we were upstairs on a double decker, earphones firmly in place to listen to the commentary, and heading off on a 90 minute round trip of the city. We find that this kind of bus tour is a great way to see the highlights, get a feel for a city and an overview of what’s where, and then delve into the deeper sightseeing after that. On this occasion we used the Big Bus company, and paid 35 euros each for a 48 hour ticket, but other companies run within the city too (although your ticket is only valid for the bus company you buy it from).

As suspected, the bus tour was a great place to start. We went across the river, marvelling at the architecture of the city, winding through Via del Corso, the main shopping street, saw centuries old churches and buildings, detailed sculptures, statues and fountains, felt blown away by the magnificent sight of the colosseum at the bottom of a busy thoroughfare and imagined the site of the chariot racing on Circus Maximus.

Then we got off the bus where we’d started and stopped for lunch in a little bistro on the side of the road who did a lunch menu of bruschetta, choice of pizza or pasta and a glass of wine or beer for just 12 euros – not at all what we’d expected from reports of Rome being expensive. We sat outside on the terrace under a patio heater and it was just fabulous!

After checking into the hotel we headed out once more; this time over the river on foot and past Castel Sant’Angelo, with St Peters Basilica in our eye line. As our Vatican and St Peters visit was planned for the next day, we crossed across the River Tiber, meandered through tiny cobbled side streets, just soaking up how fabulous Rome is, declaring that we already loved the place and beaming with happiness.

 

Our hotel was just round the corner from Piazza Navona, which we’d read would have a Christmas market. It was all running remarkably late, setting up but not at all Christmassy, but the Fountain of Neptune and Fountain of the Four Rivers in front of the Santa Agnese in Agona church were beautiful to look at.

We found a beautiful bistro, covered in fairy lights with a rather gorgeous menu and decided we would head back there later that evening to eat, which we did – the most delicious medium rare steak wrapped in bacon with shaved truffles, accompanied by a bottle of chianti. Heading back to our hotel through Piazza Navona and past the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi it’s fair to say we were giddy with happiness and giddy with Rome.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and Santa Agnese in Agone church at night

Coming soon – day 2 at the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica.

Have you ever been to Rome? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks, as always, for reading, x

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2018 travel plans

I like to always have at least one trip planned or booked in advance, which is why it’s very rare for me to enter a New Year without knowing what some of our travel plans will be for the coming 12 months. 2018 is no exception!

2018 travel plans

These are the trips we have booked so far:

March – North Wales
The official reason for the trip is that we’re going to the 2 day Hard Rock Hell festival in Pwllhelli (staying in a caravan, yay!) but it makes sense to have a little nosy round while we’re up there. Despite having been to the event a couple of times before we’ve never visited Criccieth castle which is just a few miles away, so that’s one for this year, and of course some bracing sea air in a walk along the beach.

Criccieth Castle

We’ll catch up with friends, watch bands and ask ourselves why it’s been such a long time since our last caravan break – we love them!

May – Palma, Majorca
Taking advantage of the early May Bank Holiday, we’re going to Palma for 3 nights and my Mother in Law is coming with us. We’ve been on short trips with her before and she’s a great travel companion – she wants to see everything but isn’t a control freak (that will be me, then) so she goes with the flow and doesn’t question my itinerary (I’m making it sound like a bootcamp!) I haven’t been to Majorca since I was a little girl, and that was a beach holiday with my Mom and Dad, so I’m looking forward to exploring the capital city, wandering through the gothic quarter, oohing at the cathedral and eating tapas.

Palma de Mallorca

We’ll also get out of the city for a day and take a train to Port de Soller and possible Valldemossa. Temperatures should be nice without being too hot, and I’ve booked us into a 16th century traditional hotel with a rooftop view over the Cathedral. Happy days!

September – Athens and Santorini, Greece
When the husband and I got together almost 13 years ago, we used to talk about Santorini and how beautiful it looked and how much we’d like to go there. Yet somehow, in all this time, we’ve never got round to it, even though it’s on my list of top 5 places I’d like to visit . So, for our 10th wedding anniversary this coming September, we’re spending a week on the island, with a few days in Athens first (Athens was on my 2nd list of places I’d like to visit!)

Athens

We’ll fly from Birmingham to Athens, enjoy visiting historical sights, wandering the streets of Plaka (the district where we’re staying) and of course fantastic Greek food, before a 45 minute flight to Santorini where we’re staying in Oia (many of the photographs you see of Santorini on websites and in travel brochures are taken in Oia; it’s a beautifully picturesque town built into the side of the volcanic crater with stunning white and blue domed buildings).

Santorini

There’s lots to see on the island so we’ll need to get the balance right between doing and chilling but, being in Oia, we’ll get the very best sunsets every night!. Definitely having some lazing by the pool days, but also keen to get down into the caldera, maybe take a boat trip to appreciate the scale of the volcanic crater, and visit some of the smaller traditional villages.

So excited!

The trouble with loving travel is prioritising where to go next, as there’s always somewhere else on your list (hence why it’s taken us so long to get to Santorini!) I’d like to squeeze in another overseas break but the husband doesn’t like to tie up all his annual leave, and he keeps talking about spending time at home now that we have a lovely private garden to enjoy.

In truth, with 2018’s main trips already wrapped up (unless I get my way!), I’m already thinking ahead to 2019…

What trips do you have planned so far? Or where would you like to go? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks, as always, for reading. x

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A happy travel ending

You may recall a while ago I was pondering about how and where to celebrate my upcoming 40th birthday. After some online research and option weighing, we did decide on Rome. Cue huge amounts of excitement! Flights, hotel and time off work were booked, and we started to look forward to our December Roman holiday.

Monarch flight

Until, just a few weeks later, when I woke up to the news that airline Monarch had gone into liquidation. Guess who our flights were booked with?

Because it was a flight only booking, we weren’t covered under ATOL, but initial reports were that, as I’d booked by credit card, I’d be covered under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. I must admit that I only book flights on a credit card if there’s no fee. If there’s a charge I’ll book through my debit card with my savings and then replace them, but this experience has DEFINITELY taught me a lesson! Off I went to Barclaycard who sent me some forms to fill in detailing my original booking with costs and receipts.

Step 2 was finding some replacement flights. Because the hotel was already booked (non refundable, for the best price obvs) we couldn’t change our travel plans. Unfortunately there were no other direct flights out of Birmingham on the day we were due to travel, and the connecting flights had too long a layover in a connecting airport which would eat into our city break, and be a laborious and patience testing start to my birthday trip (the husband isn’t known for his tolerance). There were flights that fit from Manchester, which would mean staying at an airport hotel overnight, but they were with Ryanair who were having their own issues and cancelling flights left, right and centre due to lack of pilot availability, so I just couldn’t risk it. Having our trip cancelled for a second time wasn’t an option.

Eventually I found flights with EasyJet from Luton. It’s not ideal (our preferred option is always a cab to the airport from home, rather than a 2 hour drive, and Luton’s a pretty grim airport) but the departure flight is earlier than the original Birmingham ones which means more time to enjoy Rome. We’ll travel down the day before, stay overnight near the airport and then check in early doors. The early start means we land at 10.30am, so we’ll be in the centre and seeing the sights by lunchtime.

Phew.

That wasn’t the end of our woes though. As well as our trip to Rome, we’d also booked flights for a long weekend in Palma next May, with my Mother in Law. And the airline was…you guessed it…bloody Monarch! Once again our hotel was booked on a non refundable basis. Replacement flights for this trip were harder to find, because with avoiding Ryanair for the aforementioned reasons, the prices were coming in at £70 extra per person with Jet2. A 40% increase on the original flights is a big chunk to swallow, especially as it meant it would cost my Mother in Law more than I’d promised (or the husband and I would have to pay her share, as well as our own). But, as prices crept up day by day, I just had to bite the bullet and book them.

Back then to Barclaycard. When I was completing my claim forms for them to (hopefully) refund my £731 in Monarch flights, I felt very cross and indignant that the whole thing was leaving me considerably out of pocket. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel for the staff who lost their jobs (and got suitably chastised on Twitter when I complained about the liquidation rather than the wellbeing of Monarch’s employees) but closer to home this was hitting me where it hurts (I could buy new shoes with that extra cash!) And so I cheekily included the additional Palma flight costs on my claim.

Well, bugger me, if Barclaycard haven’t paid up! Yep, they’ve credited the original flight costs, and made an additional payment to cover the extra I’ve had to pay out to Jet2. The beauties!

What’s the moral of the story? I don’t know whether it’s always pay by credit card for financial protection, don’t book non refundable hotels, or chance your luck and be cheeky because you might just get lucky! Either way, hurrah for Barclaycard!

Have you ever had travel plans messed up or rearranged?

Thanks, as always, for reading. x

 

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